Ashtanga Yoga is a form of classical yoga developed and taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. It comes from the teachings of Vamana Rishi recorded in the Yoga Korunta. This text was given to Sri T. Krishnamacharya by his teacher R. Mohan Bramachari. Krishnamacharya then passed the teachings on to K. Pattabhi Jois (affectionately known by his students as Guruji) who organized it into the system that we know and practice today.
As taught by Guruji from the scripture, Ashtanga is a form of vinyasa yoga. This means that movement and breathing are used together in synchronization. From the beginning of the practice until the end the breath flows freely and deliberately, creating change in the body through the resulting tapasya (purificatory heat).
tristhana (three supports) describes the three pillars of the physical practice:
(1) asana is the physical practice used to cleanse and purify the physical body. Ashtanga Yoga uses six series of postures. The first, or Primary Series is the sequence practiced by the majority of the Ashtanga community around the world.
(2) ujjayi pranayama is the breathing practice used to cleanse and stabilize the emotional body. An Ashtanga practitioner breathes through only the nose during physical practice, allowing the breath to flow freely and deliberately. The flow of breath is controlled by using the throat as a valve, creating a characteristic ‘hissing’ sound.
(3) drishti is the gazing place, perhaps the subtlest of the three pillars. In each position of the practice there is a particular direction in which the focus should be directed. The most common gazing places are down towards the tip of the nose or up toward the third eye.
It is very important to remember that there is far more to yoga than what occurs on a yoga mat. What many people call yoga is in fact only asana, and it would be useful for yoga practitioners, as they become more familiar with the teachings, to correct their language. asana is only one part of a much larger practice. The word ashtau means eight, and the word anga means limb. So Ashtanga Yoga is Eight-Limbed Yoga, of which asana is just one limb.